It's budget time for the East County Water Control District and while real talks won't begin until Aug. 5 on three scenarios prepared by Comptroller Brenda Fallon, the board took an opportunity to raise the issue at its July 15 meeting.
A budget must be ratified and passed by the board of commissioners on Aug. 19 at their next regularly scheduled meeting. A new budget could call for a raise in assessment fees or the budget would not call for any tax increases.
Fallon presented three scenarios for next year, notably Scenario A1, B1 and C1 and said she would talk with each member of the board about any thoughts concerning the budget before the next meeting.
At the out start of the discussion, she noted that in Scenario B1, there would be no need for a tax increase on the rate payers in Lehigh who are assessed annually.
With much discussion and paper before them, commissioners were not familiar with all the details.
Commissioner Mike Welch said he needed more time to look at all the material, but noted that he would not vote for a tax increase.
Commissioner Nate Stout said he didn't like going into reserves.
"I fought for years to lower taxes; our economy has turned out here, probably with a 7 percent value increase in property values over last year. Net worth assets are going up," he said as attributed to a recording of the meeting made available to The Citizen.
Ken Thompson noted a 6.8 percent trend in property values and said employees of the district are losing money and power in what they can purchase and indicated he may favor an increase in salaries for employees.
Chairman Dave Deetscreek said he didn't want to see a tax increase.
"I just don't want to see any. I want to see the COLA built in there," he said.
Commissioner Welch directing his comments to Thompson said he didn't think employees had suffered since 2008.
"People have been laid off by the thousands elsewhere, but not here. We have kept our employees," he said.
"Our people did not have to worry about being laid off. We kept the assessment rate. I think it is a testament to the board before me. We have never contemplated laying anybody off and we have treated employees well.
"I have an exception, but I respect your opinion," he told Thompson.
But Commissioner Thompson said he didn't think he and Welch were in disagreement.
Later, Welch said that during discussion on budget scenarios for next year, he had spoken up and said that he would only support a budget scenario of no tax increase and Chairman Deetscreek said the same.
"Nate Stout went on about having a tax increase and also borrowing money again because it is cheap. We are already about $10 million in the hole to the banks and lenders. Ken Thompson wants a tax increase and he thinks that our employees are suffering," Welch said.
He called the words between himself and Thompson a "confrontation."
"The confrontation came by me to Thompson in that I said I would not raise taxes. People in Lehigh are still struggling. As for the employees I told him that those sitting on this board before me have been able to keep all of our employees on board since the crash in 2008. I also said that we have been able to pay middle to above average wages and that they have the best of health care insurance and a retirement plan that we pay for them (minus 3 percent.
"I told him that no employee over these past several hard years had to worry about their futures and that forgoing pay raises in this bad economy pales in comparison to getting fired and getting only $250 a week in unemployment. I told him that we all know of so many whose lives were ruined, lost their homes, jobs and families," Welch said.
He said Stout tried to argue that he was the most conservative of the group, "yet he voted for the biggest tax increase in 2009."
"He also claims that things are so better in Lehigh that we can go ahead and have a tax increase," Welch said.
Members of the five-board commission will start serious discussions and voting on the budget on Aug. 5 and Welch said he plans to ask that 'we cut the baloney' and take a vote on the one scenario that does not raise taxes and the other two scenarios that raise them significantly. Then we will know where each commissioner stands. The previous board, including Mr. Stout voted to take all this loan money and we are buried into paying them."
Welch continued: "So, it appears as of now that Thompson and Stout want to raise taxes. They carry on that we need all these projects. I think that myself and Deetscreek are saying 'pay as we go' and live within our means, like struggling families in Lehigh have to do.
The political back and forth will likely continue on Aug 5, but commissioners are required to have a budget ready and passed by the Aug. 19 meeting.
Before the meeting was over, Commissioners Mike Welch and Mike Bonacolta said they each had to leave and it was noted in the recorded tape from the meeting.
Meanwhile, it was announced that ECWCD Assistant District manager Michael S. Cook, has earned a designation as a Certified District Manager (CDM).
The CDM program was created by FASD and the Florida Department of Community Affairs in 2004 to help satisfy the primary education and training arm for the educational requirements of Chapter 189, Florida Statutes. The program is partnered with Florida State University's Askew School of Government to provide the best possible certification program for this field and ensure special district managers comply with Florida Statutes governing special districts.
"We are so pleased to have Mike complete this program administered by FSU and FASD, this is just another indication of how ECWCD is doing everything they can to provide quality service to our constituents," said Commissioner Stout.
ECWCD's manager, David E. Lindsay, and Commissioner Stout graduated from the first CDM program, earning his CDM designation in 2004. Stout graduated from the first Certified District Official offered by Florida State University and FASD.
Students in the CDM class are tested in core subject areas like contract management and procurement, project management, intergovernmental affairs, public information and public relations, strategic planning and budgeting, board relations, ethics and the sunshine law, collective bargaining and are required to present a written project.
Successful graduates are recognized and awarded their certification at the FASD Annual Conference in June. This program not only recognizes the professional and educational accomplishments of district managers of special districts, but also promotes professionalism among the members of this profession, said ECWCD spokeswoman Carla Ulakovic.